Thursday, April 14, 2011

Inspiration Point

I am extremely grateful to have a secondary art form I can fall back on when the writing (and the writering) gets wonky. Photography. It's been a way to keep the creative fires stoked while the writing decides to go off and sulk for some reason. Over the past couple of decades, photography has been the saving grace, keeping me from falling into a long, dark teatime of the soul many, many times. When I finished my undergrad degree and couldn't write a word without a paralyzing sense of futility and worthlessness, photography was how I kept connected to my creative self for the seven years it took to get beyond the destructive words of a couple of professors. Many times, photography has helped me overcome the small blocks that come during any creative project, or shown me the solution to a particular problem by putting it into a different language, a visual one.

This past week was such a time.

After weeks of the novel rolling along just fine, it all came to a crashing halt in the past couple of weeks. Suddenly, the words were not flowing. It was taking me days to write two pages and, worse, I was starting to doubt that I remembered all the things I wanted to do in this draft sufficiently to make this final revision achieve the full vision I had for the novel. It just sucked. Even beyond the thirty minutes it usually sucks. What was getting written was fine, but the experience was as if I was writing the words in my own blood. It was agonizing. I became a horrible, bitchy person, too, snapping at everyone, falling into a dark pit of despair and not knowing how, nor really wanting, to get out.

So I took a day off from writing and went to take pictures. I chose to go to a place I love: Fort Point, the only remaining Civil War-era fort on the West Coast. It figures into my next novel, but it's also such an amazingly evocative place for me (it is, quite literally, right underneath the SF side of the Golden Gate Bridge), I thought, if anything can get me out of my funk, Fort Point can. Only I didn't know Fort Point wasn't open during the week. So I was stuck. And pissed.

But can you see the symbolism here? Here I was, locked out of a place I'd found creatively inspiring, just as I was locked out my novel.

I accepted the challenge the universe was offering me. Okay. Can't photograph inside, I'll see what I can find outside.

My first attempts were not inspiring. I'd wanted to photograph in black and white, but it wasn't working. And my eye wasn't there at all. I could feel it just looking through the viewfinder. I wasn't finding the image. As I said in my post How Do You Know You're A Good Writer, you can feel when you get it right. This is one of the main things photography has taught me because the feedback is so instantaneous in photography. You don't have to read 200 pages of text to know if you've got it right, you can see it immediately. With digital photography, the feedback is even quicker. And it's helped me learn what that moment feels like when I know (or rather, my subconscious knows) it works.

Then I switched to color and the results were a little better.

Then there was the image that's at the top of this post, and I felt things begin to shift. I remembered my interest in patterns and the edges of things.

I started thinking about what was going on with the patterns I was photographing, what made these photos more visually interesting to me than what I'd started out doing that day, and realized I had stumbled on some craft ideas that were applicable to writing:

Juxtaposition works as a way of showing how two disparate objects rub up against each other, the tension comes from the degree of difference between them. For example, black and white creates a much greater sense of contrast than two shades of blue. It's also a way of showing how two objects can be affected in radically different ways by the same process.

The same idea is true in fiction. How sentences, scenes, and chapters are ordered can create radically different effects because of what happens before it and after it. Juxtaposition of characters is also important. Nothing bothers me more in a story (especially TV shows or movies) when story lines are essentially the same - different characters going through the EXACT SAME THING. Shakespeare used subplots to echo the main plot line. There were similarities, yes, but he showed different outcomes through his subplots, the dynamics of each plot were different. Putting too many similar characters together makes a story very bland, although I also have a problem with a lot of contemporary fiction where characters are quirky for the sake of being quirky. So it's a delicate thing. But back to the photography because here was my visual art form showing me something I was forgetting in my novel - the juxtaposition of two characters in a scene.

I also noticed that what makes repetition interesting is when it's broken. It's the unexpected surprise that really makes us aware of the pattern.

And then there was the moment I found a small project, and really felt my inner artist kick in. Many of the bricks on the exterior of the fort have names carved into them, some of them dating back to the 1930's or earlier, so I created an alphabet by finding each sequential letter in the names on the fort's facade. It was a challenge, and I'm sure I looked quite deranged scanning the bricks and saying, "'X', there's an 'X,' I have to remember that." When it was done, and I had found all 26 letters, I felt great.

Which was another lesson for me to remember: if the big project isn't working, give yourself a small assignment. A scene, some dialogue between two characters, a scene written from another character's point of view.

And, ultimately, the big lesson of the day for me was about giving up the illusion of control in the creative process. I'd been trying to control my novel too tightly, and it was rebelling. I'm dealing with a pissed off fourteen-year old narrator, sometimes my novel takes on that personna, and I have to remember that when I'm dealing with it.

There is an adage that lots of writers like to repeat about discipline and the necessity of showing up every day. While I agree with that, I also believe it's more important to honor the way you want to write. For me, when I try to adhere to a strict, every day writing schedule, my writer shuts down. I have to let my writer guide me, trust that she knows what she's doing and, if she says she needs a break, to take that break even when it's frustrating or doesn't make sense. Thank goodness I have a second art form that makes it possible for me to be creative and figure things out while in the act of creation.

And the last thing I learned. When you're really stuck, steal someone else's artwork and make it your own:

1 comment:

Traci Chee said...

Oh goodness, juxtaposition! I love this technique. I noticed it most when I read the graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and I saw that the juxtaposition of panels (and characters) created this really interesting extra layer of meaning and nuance that you wouldn't see if you were just reading for plot. In fiction, however, I think putting two characters/scenes/images next to each other is actually less visual and more auditory. I talk about it in terms of "resonance" and "echoing." It plays on the idea that once you've heard something (or read it, in this case), it remains with you, and it changes how you perceive what comes after it, which is I think a neat way to think about structuring scenes, motifs, and even sentences.